Beats the Alternative

What makes it so hard to be old?

Getting old can be tough. Sure, there are a lot of perks as well, provided you’ve saved enough for retirement, but uncertainties remain. The body starts to break down, it’s harder to find work if that’s what you desire, society relegates you to a position you might not be comfortable with, income is often fixed, some people choose to prey upon your vulnerabilities, and healthcare costs can be hard to tackle.

Nature can make the aging process fairly easy, or pretty damn hard. It’s different for everyone. Of course, as my father often says, “getting older beats the alternative.” Genetics, lifestyle and socio-economic factors have a lot to do with how comfortable, or uncomfortable your golden years will be. What strikes me as odd, though, is the loss of respect our society seems to have for the elderly. Anyone who was clever enough to make it past middle age, even if that person isn’t a stellar example of humanity, deserves at least a modicum of respect.

I’m bringing this up now because it’s an election year. Senior citizens are voters. Rather than thank and congratulate them on their service to society, it seems political parties often court their votes by scaring the hell out of them. If you vote for this guy, he’s going to take away your Medicare, if you vote for the other guy, he’s going to take away your Medicare and set up death panels.

I understand that a vote is a vote, and campaign managers will try and procure them anyway they can, but intentionally frightening and misleading old people is simply wrong. Even a party that is staunchly against government healthcare is for Medicare during election season. The senior vote is that important. Medicare is governmentally funded healthcare for the elderly, and younger people with disabilities, by the way, in case you were confused on that point.

In keeping with the broad, often less-than-factual statements that mark congressional and presidential elections, I thought I’d offer up a bit of fiction as well, to set the tone. It’s a short story about an old man who is very isolated, and full of regret. In the comments, feel free to share your own feelings about aging in our society—the good and the bad—and what the future might have in store for the elderly in America.

Old and Angry

Routine
Every Monday morning, Willem Raven left his tiny Brooklyn apartment to taste life, lest life cease to exist. He needed to remember why he soldiered on. The old man had lived alone for more years than he cared to count. Most of his friends, and his enemies, were now dead and gone. He was tired of this life, often too tired to carry on.

He made his way down to the street, where he bought two jam-filled croissants from a local bakery, which he took to the park with a bottle of soda, some olive-flavored biscuits and a few slices of cheese. He found a green bench, brushed off a dusting of snow, and sat down. Despite the cold, he preferred to eat outside. He bit into the croissant and then opened the soda and drank exactly half. Willem pulled his coat tight against his sweater and nibbled on the biscuits, taking slices of cheese with some, eating others dry.

The Hawk
A red-tail hawk wove through the tree branches above him. It settled down on a long bough, and dug its claws into the frozen bark. Willem twisted his neck in order to watch the bird. Frustrated by the pain in his shoulders, he collected his food and moved to another bench, from where he could better observe the hawk. The bird cleaned its perch, sending snow and twigs down to the ground. Willem turned back to his food and began planning his day.

Perhaps he would have fish for lunch and steak for dinner, and skip the library altogether. He really shouldn’t read anything with small print, apart from his own work. He would buy some canned goods later, laundry soap and … was he out of toothpaste? He would buy some just in case. And what else? Maybe he would catch a movie, something modern. Monday was for enjoying life, the rest of the week to work and hide.

When he stood to leave, the hawk darted past him, toward some brush. The bird loitered there for a moment, and then flew off, foiled by what should have been an easy catch. “Lucky squirrel,” Willem mumbled as he left the park. He bought a paper at a nearby kiosk and browsed through the film listings. He would have preferred a stroll to the cinema, but hailed a taxi instead, afraid he might miss the first showing of the day.

The Movie House
The cab deposited him in front of the theater. He rushed inside just as the lights were being dimmed. The old movie house was almost empty, save for a few patrons in the back. The cinema used to be a vaudeville theater, back in the day, Willem recalled. The lip of the stage still protruded from beneath the screen. Tall columns supported an arch over the screen and the stage. The curtains had been drawn up to the gridiron. A few broken ribs hung below the rolled up curtains, which made the entire contraption look like a wounded animal. Willem nestled into his seat, happy to be anonymous in this house of fantasy.

When the film ended, he got up and shuffled toward the exit. The plot of the film had been difficult to follow. After the first twenty minutes or so, he had dozed off. Something about a man who could wish people alive, and wish them dead. Willem stepped outside and shielded his eyes from the bright sun. He began his stroll, although the strain on his muscles forced him to rest often. By and by he came upon a rock wall encircling a small church. He leaned against the wall and caught his breath. It was a church he often passed by when he went out for his walks. He knew he sometimes confused it with another.

Confusion
Was it Thursday? He would have to go home soon, but of course it wasn’t Thursday, and that made him laugh. He would write in his journal on Tuesday and Wednesday, and perhaps slip out Thursday morning for a small bite—but what could he eat now? He left the church and spotted a small diner. That would do. “I shall have breakfast for dinner,” he announced to no one in particular. He would eat eggs and bacon and drink coffee in warm surroundings and strike up a conversation with someone nearby and learn about his or her life. Perhaps he would meet that person next week and have breakfast for dinner again. It was a pleasing notion. He found his seat, ordered his meal, but ate alone. No one sat beside him. The food was good, but too oily. He cleaned his plate, paid and left.

Yes, he would go out on Thursday. How many years had he kept to his one-day routine? Not many—no more than five, if he calculated right. Still he had to write, but he could venture out a little more. Why should he remain cooped up all of the time?

Willem picked up a few groceries from a local market and went home. He found a box of chocolates and a note beside his door. Perhaps his grandson had paid him a call. A smile suddenly broke across his lips. He picked up the note. ‘Happy Holidays,’ it read. He glanced around the hallway. A box of chocolates rested against a few more doors. “Pity,” he said as he went inside.

Home
Willem set his groceries down, changed into his nightshirt, and dug into the chocolates. He placed one, then two in his mouth, and let them dissolve slowly until he could feel the nut inside the chocolate resting on his tongue. He went into the kitchen and made a cup of chamomile tea, which he took into his bedroom. A small electric heater rested in the corner. He flicked it on. A soft humming chorus churned forth from glowing heat grates. He crawled under his covers. Being an old man, he limited himself to only a few sips of tea. He didn’t want to have to get up every hour in order to piss. As he drifted off, he tried to remember the structure of the film he had seen earlier in the day. He had slept through too much of it to understand what was going on.

With the exception of Mondays, every morning, afternoon and night were the same. He woke early, made a small breakfast of oats and ham, drank one black coffee and then began to write in his thick journal, now over one thousand pages long. Remarkable, for he wrote no more than five pages a day. His previous work—a systemization of his life’s writings—since discarded, had been twice this size. He liked to lift this new book in his open palm. It had the hefty weight of accomplishment. His memoirs would be his final endeavor, a monument to his hard beliefs. His had been a life full of hate. The problem was that he could no longer remember why he had been so full of rage. Perhaps it had come from the bigotry of his parents, or perhaps his own failings and fears. He regretted the man he had been, and hoped it wasn’t too late for change.

A Fleeting Hope
Willem was unsure of the hour. Was it the weekend? He slipped out of bed, made coffee, boiled some oats and ate his breakfast. A loud knock disturbed him some time after nine. No one should be knocking on his door at that hour. He didn’t answer. The knock came again. He ignored it until it became a pounding. With a deep frown, he finished his coffee, pulled his robe tight and went for the door.

A thought struck him. Perhaps his grandson had come to visit him, despite vowing to never see him again. At last Willem could make amends, and apologize for all of the terrible things he had done and said. Here was his second chance. “Oh, let it be James,” the old man prayed as he approached the door. “Let it be him.”

Willem unlatched the lock. His hands shook violently. He pulled the door open. No one was there. He looked down the hall, and then at his feet. Someone had left him another box of chocolates. He picked up the gift, and went back inside.

 

Read more of Carl Pettit’s weekly column, Root Down, and Men Over 50 on The Good Life.

Image of old man courtesy of Shutterstock

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About Carl Pettit

Carl Pettit is a writer, illustrator and musician whose education and travels have taken him all over the world. When not out exploring, or pondering the universe, he finds time to produce fiction for both adults and children. You can catch up with him on his blog, or twitter.

Comments

  1. Willem de Jager says:

    What a lovely little story. I can’t wait to lock myself away in my small apartment. Perhaps I’ll be fortunate enough to do it in an interesting part of a great city. Or, if fate really smiles on me, somewhere in the country where I can keep a dog. I wont keep myself artificially alive on prescription drugs so the government can keep their free medical care. Every ache I suffer will be the consequence of an earlier choice. Regrets, I’m sure, will be bountiful. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Carl Pettit says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Interesting to note that you have the same first name as the main character in the short story. Hopefully you’ll fare better during your golden years than Mr. Raven did. A small house in the country, with a dog, doesn’t sound that bad at all.

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